The Madonna/Whore Complex in American Politics

by Corey Robin on November 28, 2012

One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states in the comments section to my post on the film:

But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.


Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists of so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.

What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. (And as Aaron Bady points out, getting the gritty Lincoln is the basic conceit of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which came out in  1939.) When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)

But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the  revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon;  Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?

I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)

Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.

We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time, especially its more elite sectors—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)

But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics among cultural and political elites in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.

It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher.  Or at least it should be.

{ 112 comments }

1

P O'Neill 11.28.12 at 6:21 pm

I think any explanation should include a discussion of the way the phrase “Founding Fathers” remains a default element of American political rhetoric, especially with conservatives.

2

brandon 11.28.12 at 6:49 pm

It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old.

I don’t know what to tell you. “That’s entertainment?” I mean, I haven’t seen Lincoln myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised, because that’s been the dynamic of a lot of popular entertainment since around 2000 or so. If you want to start a real internet fight about it you could apply that argument to Game of Thrones, which suffers from this dynamic very very starkly (haha) I think.

3

bob mcmanus 11.28.12 at 6:56 pm

Well, this isn’t rotisseire baseball, and the bargaining chips sacrificed for the election of Rutherford Hayes (or Poland?) lost more than childish idealism.

How far do you take this?

“Well, that’s just politics,” he smiled regretfully but with calm maturity in the light of shock-and-awe over Baghdad.

4

Sebastian H 11.28.12 at 6:58 pm

“What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. (And as Aaron Bady points out, getting the gritty Lincoln is the basic conceit of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which came out in 1939.) When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)”

In your estimation, what percentage of moviegoers have read any of those books or essays? You have an excellent point about the level of the audience, but it cuts against your point in the previous post. Getting from the five year old view to the fifteen year old view is still progress, and people rarely get to the mature view without the intermediate steps.

5

Anderson 11.28.12 at 7:07 pm

Madonna/whore hits the nail on the head. Americans want any given thing to be ALL good or ALL bad, and have no shades of gray, unless it’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Living amongst Southern fundamentalists, I want to attribute this complex to our Puritan heritage, but I am open to other suggestions.

6

Greg Sanders 11.28.12 at 7:13 pm

I don’t see how the dichotomy holds. In Lincoln, the President uses reasonably dirty tactics and wins a dramatic policy victory. There’s never really any insinuation that he could have gotten it through other means.

There are certainly Madonna/Whore pieces all the time where politics is just a cesspool or politics is a place where you can do the right thing and accomplish noble ends.

7

Greg Sanders 11.28.12 at 7:19 pm

Addendum: However, in Lincoln, the President achieves a noble end via politics as practiced. That’s not a 45 year old truth or something, but it might be a truth that has at least gotten through a decent high school civics class (if one that admitted does neglect the role of African Americans).

8

bob mcmanus 11.28.12 at 7:30 pm

the President uses reasonably dirty tactics and wins a dramatic policy victory.

Well, that is the key to acceptance of the movie and the argument in the post. In Lincoln, AFAIK, it was job here and some cash there in exchange for 13th. Not hard, and doesn’t impress.

How about LBJ escalating Vietnam in exchange for the CRA? (If that was the case, the 5-yr-olds (or 15-yr-olds?) I think claim there was no necessary connection). Is this another case of politics ain’t beanball, let’s do lunch? How about FDR and African-Americans and getting his New Deal?

How many vulnerable oldsters is CR willing to let suffer and die to get a Grand Bargain? 5000? 50000? A range will do.

Part of the innocence and cynicism involved here are the defensive claims to have never really really crossed your own individual personal line of conscience and integrity. Whew, I stayed just this side of evil and got it done. This is also the 5-yr-old reassuring herself.

Outrage and frustration is a way to know you’re being honest with yourself.

9

Anderson 11.28.12 at 7:36 pm

“How many vulnerable oldsters is CR willing to let suffer and die to get a Grand Bargain? 5000? 50000? A range will do.”

I refuse to believe Corey Robin would be so heartless.

10

Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 7:37 pm

8: Are you insane? I’ve been writing, here and everywhere, against the notion of a grand bargain and austerity politics for over a year now. In fact, I think you were even on one of those Crooked Timber threads, though you were probably too busy preening to notice what anyone else was saying besides yourself. In any event, the point of this post is obviously not to endorse cynicism and compromise. Though I would endorse the notion of you taking a course in remedial reading.

11

Tom West 11.28.12 at 7:38 pm

I want to attribute this complex to our Puritan heritage, but I am open to other suggestions.

How about, “black and white is more fun and less work”?

We are, after all, talking about movies, not scholarship. In the end, the the only real metric that matters to 95% of the audience is “is it entertaining?”

I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the fundamental difference between a movies and other media is that in movies, the work is costing some tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money to produce. Anything produced under such conditions is not going to be a pure expression of anyone’s artistic or intellectual vision except under the most exceptional of circumstances.

(Although, yes, I’ll admit it frightens me that some people obtain ethical or historical guidance from what must be, by its very nature, an almost purely financial enterprise.)

12

Greg Sanders 11.28.12 at 7:46 pm

bob mcamanus: No, it isn’t a tough call but even that pretty low bar is higher than the average level of discourse about politics in this country. Stevens explicitly mocks bipartisan homilies that still hold the day in many editorial pages. So yeah, it’s not highly sophisticated, but it’s also aimed at the mass market.

I think the movie also hints at tougher choices if you primarily follow the Thaddeus Stevens plotline. I do agree with Corey Robins that it could have been both truer to history and a better story if it included Stephens, Fredrick Douglas, and more activist roles for the African American characters in the film. However, regardless of what Kushner thinks about reconstruction, Stephens is obviously right on a great number of things where Lincoln is prone to hem and haw.

13

Greg Sanders 11.28.12 at 7:48 pm

Correction: Stephens should be Stevens.

14

Ben Hyde 11.28.12 at 7:55 pm

Nice.

But, I’d rather not buy that one ages into realism by way of cynicism.

Possibly the three want to map into the Goldilocks framing. It’s tough to hang out in the middle ground with the temptations of the two easier options to either side.

15

bob mcmanus 11.28.12 at 8:22 pm

10: I expect to find out what is acceptable by summer.

Listen to your Senators. Even McConnell makes his claims, almost always, to an idealism and never to a cynicism. When a compromise happens, it is always a necessary compromise, and never an excessive compromise or betrayal of core principle. IOW, even the realism retains the idealism. As said in Broadcast News you don’t have to cross the line if you can manage to move it a little.

Is the moving of the line as we grow older maturity? Well, besides idealism, cynicism, and realism there is also comedy and tragedy.

The default, probably the necessary discourse is Robin’s 5-yr-olds. We like at least to speak well of ourselves. The collateral damage or 2nd effect of the just war is rationalized within a hierarchy of values so as to be a lesser evil toward a greater good, remaining idealism. Thus always we tender homage to virtue, as is said.

I just see no broad political discourse of either cynicism or “realism” out there.” My group’s interests are universal goods, and cause little harm” is how humans manage to sleep at night.

The discourse is always idealistic.

16

Tim Worstall 11.28.12 at 8:26 pm

“But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth?”

Err, because every generation needs to learn the truth that politics is a moral cesspool and not the deliberations of omniscient, well meaning and honest Solons concerned only with the future good and wealth of the citizenry?

Yeah yeah, I know I’m the classically liberal loon around here but it is a point that is worth repeating from time to time, no? This being as true of the taxi commissioners who try to kill Uber, that near insane Republican from Florida (actually, not so insane given his electorate) who this week argued that without US import duties on sugar there would be a “Sugar OPEC” and the teachers’ unions arguing that the only thing which ails US education is not enough income for teachers.

Democratic (no, not the US party name) politics is indeed a moral cesspool. It’s who can pick other peoples’ pockets the best. The only saving grace of it all is that it’s less bad than all the other systems we’ve ever tried.

Reminding people of this sounds more like a moral duty than anything else.

17

MPAVictoria 11.28.12 at 8:34 pm

“the teachers’ unions arguing that the only thing which ails US education is not enough income for teachers.”
So can we take this to mean that, as well as writing for them, you get all your news from the National Review? You do realize that this sentence marks you as a compulsive liar?

18

Keith 11.28.12 at 8:44 pm

re:16 I think classical Liberal is being misused here in an un historical way. I see this often among tories and Libertarians. Actual classical Liberals such as J S Mill had the highest regard for representative democracy and wanted it to apply every where once the conditions for it existed. As it is the most rational way to organise politics and maximize the happiness of the majority of people.

Liberal Democracy requires compromise and that is what all political leaders do. It is not cynical to recognise that. Only dictators can and do rule without compromise and bargaining with different interests. Behind some so called Liberals lurks the desire for the “man of steel” or the Government of Gangsters as Bertrand Russell put it.

19

aspergum 11.28.12 at 8:48 pm

MPAV beat me to it. I’d like a credible citation in support of that claim. But then I believe no such thing exists. And CTTOI, it could lead this thread astray.

20

PGD 11.28.12 at 8:53 pm

I see my post in the other thread happened just as hte conversation moved to this one. Anyway, the important thing about Lincoln is not that he was a canny politician, but precisely that he did *not* compromise and took a bold stand against slavery, even at the cost of war. Trying to make Lincoln look like just another politician — like Stephen Douglas, in other words — is a big mistake and misunderstanding.

21

bob mcmanus 11.28.12 at 8:54 pm

16: politics is indeed a moral cesspool. It’s who can pick other peoples’ pockets the best.

Reminding people of this sounds more like a moral duty than anything else.

This only really works if you are willing to say you yourself are immoral within that cesspool, and that is what I don’t hear. We may think (though probably not) that getting our bridge for their hospital is an evil act, but we rarely ever say it.

Usually “politics is a moral cesspool” means that the other guys are not as good, have some power, and I have to compromise but it really isn’t my fault, just another lesser evil for a greater good. IOW a contest, competition, agon. As the good guys, we wish it were otherwise.

Anyone out there want Republicans to have a veto-point?

22

Mao Cheng Ji 11.28.12 at 9:19 pm

The way I see it: there are people with strong convictions, they are called ‘activists’. There are also ‘politicians’, people without any strong convictions, mostly ambitious, narcissistic individuals, who represent their constituencies, lead by activists, and make deals (presumably) on their behalf. That’s how it is. Activists are often admired, politicians – not so much, for obvious reasons. I don’t know what the deal is with Lincoln, how he managed to eclipse the real heroes of the period. Probably because he got shot. Similar story with Kennedy.

23

Trader Joe 11.28.12 at 9:19 pm

The ‘behind closed doors’ deals and midnight bargains is both typical Hollywood fare and in this case a rather bold exaggeration of the facts as they occurred.

Its hagiography turned into mythology by people who still think the “Civil” war was about freeing the slaves….it was, but then it wasn’t….quite a measurable portion of Civil War historians (both Yanks and Rebs) view slavery as merely the vehicle for a debate, which ended in war, about states rights. It stands as the one and only test of the difference between being the UNITED states rather than united STATES.

Thought of in those terms, the dealings depicted in Lincoln are in fact more cynical – they become deals to protect elected political power rather than anything to do with morals, humans or liberty.

Interestingly the 11 states which have petitioned for succession seem prepared to enter the same debate today…though I doubt we could get 2,500 let alone 2,500,000 to put down their TV remotes long enough to fight with rifles and cannons – unless it was a reality show for prize money.

24

Anderson 11.28.12 at 9:44 pm

I don’t know what the deal is with Lincoln, how he managed to eclipse the real heroes of the period.

By the time all this debate gets to Lincoln’s not being one of “the real heroes,” I think it’s tilted into absurdity.

25

dsquared 11.28.12 at 9:45 pm

8: Are you insane?

No he isn’t, just very, very boring.

26

Sebastian H 11.28.12 at 9:47 pm

“…view slavery as merely the vehicle for a debate, which ended in war, about states rights. “

I’m not sure what this concept could mean. Surely nobody believes that there was some inchoate states rights concern that just happened to express itself through a slavery disagreement, and could have just as easily expressed itself through forestry rights or disagreements about whether buildings should be of a Spanish style or what have you.

27

Dave 11.28.12 at 10:19 pm

What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth?

I gather it comes from the fact that lots of people–even lots of informed people–want radical things to happen in the political sphere without dealing with the moral cesspool. Do you want universal health coverage? Well, you’re going to have to buy off insurance and pharmaceutical companies. That enrages lots of people. It should! But what are you gonna do?

28

mrearl 11.28.12 at 10:28 pm

Slavery as a vehicle for debate? That rather understates. No slavery, no war. Even if you don’t deem slavery a sufficient element for the war, certainly it was a necessary one.

29

gordon 11.28.12 at 11:07 pm

The odd reactions to sexuality in US politics have often puzzled me. How the Dickens could Clinton be impeached for having sex with Monica? It just isn’t (wasn’t) that important. And Eliot Spitzer patronised prostitutes. So what – he was doing a good job, wasn’t he? On the other hand, nobody seemed to mind that JFK couldn’t keep his pants on. Why the difference in treatment?

30

Fu Ko 11.28.12 at 11:40 pm

The “founding fathers” phrase is just one small part of the president-related brainwashing 5-year-olds receive in the USA. They are also taught that George Washington was congenitally incapable of telling a lie (there’s an attribute that leads to the highest political success!), that they too can be president, etc.. And of course there’s the pledge of allegiance.

It should also be noted that “founding fathers” is much more potent as a phrase to the young children who are taught it, who are still at an age when they experience their own fathers as immensely powerful and important, akin to gods. On some level, adults can never completely shed this kind of childhood brainwashing, no matter how enlightened and realistic they become. The feeling and the image are still sitting in the background, coloring perception.

PS. Did you know that in the USSR they taught the children about “grandfather Lenin”? I think of that every time I hear the phrase “founding fathers.”

31

Fu Ko 11.28.12 at 11:41 pm

Of course, I’m replying to P O’Neill @1, above.

32

Salient 11.28.12 at 11:42 pm

Spoilers. The first four minutes or so of Lincoln were great — the measured confrontation between Lincoln and the black lieutenant was really well done, I think. That actually reinforces the point you’re trying to make — where the hell did that tone, tension, and sentiment go for, like, the whole rest of the film? Stevens’ lie in particular is unapologetically portrayed as not just heroic, but monumental–it’s basically the climax of the movie, the peak victory, presented in some kind of ‘a small step for me, a giant leap for mankind’ mentality–that was completely unnecessary, entirely Spielberg’s prerogative, and stupid as hell, and you’re perfectly right to call him on it.

33

Main Street Muse 11.29.12 at 12:24 am

“What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth?”

This is a very good question – whenever every time I hear anyone yearn for the “golden age of discourse,” I wonder when that was.

The Lincoln hagiography – somehow I think that stems from the Godlike proportions he’s assumed in stone, both on Mt. Rushmore and at the Lincoln Memorial.

Or perhaps we can thank MLK’s 1963 march on Washington, with his brilliant speech that opened with a tribute to the Great Emancipator:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

Perhaps it was the title itself – Great Emancipator. That “symbolic shadow” is long and deep.

But Lincoln was a man. And the president who graces the penny. And a historical figure whose story cannot be contained within the constraints of a 2.5 hour film.

34

Will Boisvert 11.29.12 at 12:58 am

Corey, you’re right—Spielberg’s view of Lincoln is yesterday’s news to scholars (and probably to the pundits who grandstand about it). But to ordinary movie-goers, whose impression is that Lincoln accomplished everything through inspiring rhetoric, the horse-trading might be more of a surprise. (Although not that much of a surprise, since any half-way educated adult will immediately realize that it must have been that way.)

I don’t know if the Madonna/whore dichotomy is really an apt characterization of the Spielberg template. Isn’t his Lincoln simultaneously both a Madonna and a whore, trying to achieve sacred ends through sordid means? Or, rather, isn’t Spielberg rejecting that dichotomy, and arguing that a pragmatic pursuit of political ideals requires calculated trade-offs between greater goods and lesser evils that advance the cause as far as it can go today while leaving more to do tomorrow? And isn’t that the essence of a mature political realism?

Yes, that notion is old hat, but maybe it bears repeating. Especially because Madonna/whore dichotomizing is strongest not on the right or the liberal center, but on the left. It’s precisely the repudiation of electoral and parliamentary politics as a “moral cesspool” and an impenetrable preserve of corrupt elites that drives left politics down a blind alley of self-marginalization. That’s why OWS, the most useful context for viewing Lincoln, refused to do anything so unseemly as articulate a platform, support candidates or horse-trade over demands, and instead sputtered out in feckless “direct action.”

35

Suzanne 11.29.12 at 1:10 am

“Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. (And as Aaron Bady points out, getting the gritty Lincoln is the basic conceit of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which came out in 1939.) When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins.”

As pointed out earlier in this thread, the audiences for scholarly history and a feature film aimed at a mass market are different. It is safe to say that many if not most of the people going to the cinema to see “Lincoln” are largely unfamiliar with changes in historians’ view of Lincoln, and they probably haven’t seen “Young Mr. Lincoln” either, unless they’ve sought it out on DVD or they can afford a cable package with Turner Classic Movies. Hard to say that Kushner and Spielberg are bringing moviegoers old news.

Some of the audience for “Lincoln” probably have read Gore Vidal’s novel and possibly the old TV movie based upon it starring Sam Waterston (which bombed), in which case your point is a little stronger. For example, Geoffrey O’Brien describes Day-Lewis’ assumption of a high, shrill voice for Lincoln as a novelty – Waterston did that on TV years ago, following Vidal, who made a point of noting it. Vidal’s depiction of a darker and more complex Lincoln did much to alter the popular view of his character. Even so, this new “Lincoln” is the most complex depiction of the President we’ve seen in a feature film (including Ford’s, as wonderful as that movie is).

36

Harold 11.29.12 at 1:17 am

I thought I heard Abe Lincoln shout,
Rebels close down them plantations and let the n* s out.
I’m positively sure I heard Mr. Lincoln shout.

I though I heard Mr. Lincoln say,
You gonna lose this war, git on your knees and pray,
That’s the words I heard Mr. Lincoln say.
–Civil war song quoted by Donald Marquis in Luc Santé, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” , The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Griel Marcus

37

soru 11.29.12 at 1:30 am

There’s another interesting dichotomy relevant to the film, which is the way in which in most discussion of US politics, the two options presented are voting simply to pick leaders (president, judges, senators), and armed revolution. You can reasonably call the first largely meaningless in terms of making improvements, as opposed to preventing bad things. And the second is almost certainly impossible, and in any case very likely undesirable.

The thing missing is the space between those extremes. The thing that was always intended to be a permanent part of US democracy, but got dropped somewhere along the way; the constitutional amendment.

The last non-procedural one was in 1965; what should the next one be? How-about something like ‘if any individual or corporation in the Press of the United States shall be proven to have taken payment in fee or kind to influence their protected speech during the period of one calendar year before the data of an election, they shall be guilty of the crime of felony bribery, and subject to such penalties as the law may decree’.

Details aside, if the film reminds people that that is the kind of scale of thing that has happened, and could happen again, maybe it won’t be another 50 years before there’s another vote with comparable stakes to elections in every other democratic country on the planet.

38

PGD 11.29.12 at 1:32 am

but…but…but…Lincoln did *not* achieve his goals by ordinary politics. The most destructive war in American history was involved. And what makes Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans distinctive is that they were willing to fight that war, when politicians had been compromising and turning away in the face of Southern opposition for almost a century. Lincoln is a politician as well as a war leader, who did get attacked from both the left (abolitionists) and hte right for political compromises. But trying to portray him as an ordinary politician is probably an even bigger mistake than trying to portray him as a heroic martyr war leader. You shouldn’t have to choose one stereotype or the other but the latter might be the more accurate of the two.

39

Jim Harrison 11.29.12 at 1:50 am

Anybody who works with or lives around doctors and nurses knows that the most sincere commitment to the alleviation of suffering can coexist in the same individuals with the coarsest cynicism about human life. Is politics that different? We assume a consistency in human nature that is daily contradicted by experience if we think that the political Madonna isn’t also a whore, somewhat in the manner of the famous rabbit-duck.

In any case, the occasional goodness of bad men is often more helpful to the cause than the routine virtue of better individuals.

It does bother me that we operate with such gross categories as villain and saint. This discussion is about whether the dirtiness of Lincoln’s tactics was a salient feature of the movie. What bothered me about Lincoln, however, was not that; but the film’s depiction of the President as more than Christ-like. After all, as the movie tells the tale, the difference between Lincoln and Jesus is that Jesus only had one really shitty day.

40

Harold 11.29.12 at 1:51 am

I saw this film not as a message praising Obama for being a “compromiser” but as an admonition to him to twist more arms and do whatever it takes.

I saw Stevens not as “lying” but as making one relatively small compromise to baffle and astound his opponents, and doing it, not as he was advised to do by the compromisers, but in his own way and on his own terms, which were much more devastatingly effective.

Furthermore, Mrs. Keckly advised Lincoln to focus on the present moment, and he took her advice, ordering the confederate peace delegation to stay out of Washington (at least that is the way I remember it) — I may have confused this with another scene.

41

rf 11.29.12 at 1:52 am

What exactly is the ‘but this was aimed at a mass market’ argument here? I’m really not getting it – That more blacks would turn of American audiences? Or that more bottom up violent insurrection would not have been commercially viable?

42

Bill Barnes 11.29.12 at 2:12 am

Re those (mostly on the previous thread) who declare that, absent major sins of commission historical-accuracy-wise, the film ought to be evaluated strictly for its entertainment-value and its craftsmansip, not on political or scholarly/pedagogical grounds: Besides the fact that the film embodies some political intent (defending Obama — pragmatic reformists — against radical critics), “Lincoln” represents a major teachable moment, and public intellectuals bear a responsibility not to allow such to be wasted. The movie focuses on Lincoln’s realism, pragmatism and tactical acumen of-the- moment, arguing that idealism achieves real-world success only by accepting the leadership of such master pragmatists. But to understand Lincoln’s realism as of 1864-65, you have to appreciate how he was gradually, forcefully, educated by a decade of interaction with abolitionists, and several years of increasing awareness of slaves coming north and joining Union ranks and performing impressively (his education being mediated by the likes of Frederick Douglass). You can’t understand Lincoln’s greatness, or the requirements of high quality national leadership in our political system, without focusing on his openness to, and ability to gradually assimilate this “forced” education – his amazing learning capacity, his ability to evolve, to avoid getting trapped in any group-think, his willingness to listen to and consider the testimony of sources that others (and his earlier self) saw as having nothing to teach — while living in a pressure cooker, surrounded by tragedy, that would have paralyzed or disabled most people. Of course, while Kushner is wrong about how and why Reconstruction failed, it is certainly true that within 10 years of Lincoln’s death, neither the Republican Party nor anyone else could sustain the lessons that Lincoln had learned in his last years. The 13th Amendment became a dead letter for 75 years — so much for treating its 1865 approval in the House as a historic watershed. It was brought back to life and finally made victorious only by the combination of the 20th century growth of black civil society, the experiences of WWII, the following upsurge of black activism, the effect of national televsion, and the Cold War context – with Hubert Humphrey and LBJ combining to play, briefly, something like Lincoln’s role.

43

js. 11.29.12 at 2:51 am

I’m mostly in agreement with CR (and others saying similar things in the previous thread). What I find a bit odd is the repeated equation or conflation of “Spielberg” and “Hollywood”, along with blithe assumptions about “What The Audience Wants”. Look Spielberg is one of the biggest Hollywood directors out there obviously, but equally obviously, a big-budget film called Lincoln about the passage of the 13th amendment directed by Scorsese would have been rather different. I’m not saying that it would necessarily have foregrounded black agency, or that it would have been better, or whatever, but it’s clearly true that such a film could have been made and it would have been very different. It could even have been quite successful. (Or say, a film called Lincoln, etc., directed by P.T. Anderson. Or, well, you get the point.) “Oh, it’s Hollywood!” doesn’t get one anywhere, because it doesn’t actually explain anything. Because it really is about Spielberg, and because as a director he obviously has a ton of agency—esp. as a damn successful Hollywood director. (Again, if you’re inclined to doubt this, imagine a biopic of Howard Hughes called The Aviator directed by Spielberg. Etc.)

So, the problem is Spielberg. And the thing is, this was entirely to be expected! I take it this was part of CR’s point, though I’m not sure he meant it in quite the way I do. I find that Spielberg doing fluff, or working in genre, is generally pretty great—he paces the films well, he handles (relatively banal) subtext more or less subtly, etc. Good stuff mostly, though I haven’t seen a lot of his recent films. Spielberg doing Serious Film, like grand historical narrative with obvious socio-political implications—generally a disaster. Like Munich: set aside its political problems for a second (of which there are legion), the scene that effectively serves as the emotional climax in the film is a fucking crime against filmmaking.*

*If you’ve seen the film and are unsure what scene I’m talking, (if this is even possible!) I’ll just note that it involves cross-cutting between two entirely unrelated sets of scenes, one of which reenacts a historical event, and the other… the other not so much.

44

ponce 11.29.12 at 3:02 am

“Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.”

Seeing as “Lincoln” has plateaued at #3 at the Box Office, I don’t think it is being thought of as anything but the latest in a long string of Spielberg flops.

45

Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 3:08 am

People, people: since this apparently needs stating, this post is not about *Lincoln* the film but about how it’s been received. Not by the entire viewing audience but, as I make clear, but by some fairly influential arbiters of cultural taste. Commentary about the film itself on this thread is totally beside the point.

46

ponce 11.29.12 at 3:41 am

Isn’t the lack of an audience for the movie all the commentary you need?

Spielberg *could* have made a movie about Lincoln that beat “Twighlight 2″ at the box office.

“some fairly influential arbiters of cultural taste” = irony?

47

wilfred 11.29.12 at 4:12 am

“So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai.”

The “Say it ain’t so, Joe” historical model.

You’re leaving out all the hagiography that precedes the banal revelation. The hero generating media machine relentlessly raises up instant ‘icons’, politicians, mostly. The only reason we are shocked is because the ground was already seeded with gold dust.

48

Meredith 11.29.12 at 5:56 am

What motivates an artist (I’m no Spielberg fan, but I’ll grant him this designation; I’ll also grant it to Kushner, who is certainly, appallingly, no historian) may consciously (whatever that might mean) intend and the reception of her “work” are two different things — at least two, since “reception” will be effected differently by many people not just at one time, but through many times. CR is focusing on what he identifies as fairly influential arbiters of cultural taste right now. Fair enough. Important, in fact. We’ll have to wait to see, though, what the movie’s popular reception “now” is like.

I was talking today to a distinguished civil war historian, someone I admire, who has argued for years against the states’ rights kind of argument (advanced somewhere above, with incredible ignorance) and examined the deeply racist, pro-slavery commitments of the South. He really liked the movie, despite some problems he had with it. What he really wanted to talk about: Sally Fields’ Mary Todd, which he thought was brilliant (as conception in the story’s structure, as performance by Fields). I mean, you never know what people will take away. Of course, we all contribute to one another’s “take-away” through our conversations about the movie, which then becomes part of its effect or impact. But some space is also needed, space we have to give one another.

49

JW Mason 11.29.12 at 6:06 am

It occurs to me that no one in this kerfuffle has yet quoted Karl Marx’s assessment of Lincoln.

Lincoln is a sui generis figure in the annals of history.He has no initiative, no idealistic impetus, no historical trappings. He gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form. Other people claim to be “fighting for an idea”, when it is for them a matter of square feet of land. Lincoln, even when he is motivated by, an idea, talks about “square feet”. … The most redoubtable decrees — which will always remain remarkable historical documents — flung by him at the enemy all look like, and are intended to look like, routine summonses sent by a lawyer… His latest proclamation, which is drafted in the same style, the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.

Nothing is simpler than to show that Lincoln’s principal political actions contain much that is aesthetically repulsive, logically inadequate, farcical in form and politically, contradictory… But Lincoln’s place in the history of the United States and of mankind will, nevertheless, be next to that of Washington. …

Lincoln is not the product of a popular revolution. This plebeian, who worked his way tip from stone-breaker to Senator in Illinois, without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance-an average person of good will, was placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake. The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organisation, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!

Evidently the idea of Lincoln as essentially an ordinary politician goes back quite a bit farther even than Hofstadter.

50

dbk 11.29.12 at 6:37 am

Bill Barnes@42: hear, hear.

Question: Was Spielberg’s explicit intent to model Lincoln as a teachable moment re: our current President’s politicking? I mean, our current President was baptized in the politics of Chicago (a politics Lincoln also knew, iirc) – seriously, are there folks out there who thought he wasn’t a … politician? (note: most Illinoisans who have even a passing acquaintance with Chicago knew what was coming, even if they couldn’t bear to admit it even to themselves.)

My problem with any intentional parallels between the two men has more to do with the ends of each – Lincoln’s (eventual, not-easily-arrived-at) end is felt to have justified the means. What precisely are the ends of the current President? Single-payer (50 years down the road)? Clean energy (after 50 years of fracking?) An end to war (mediated by …)? Financial reform ?, etc. I really am not sure in his case. Lincoln kept his eyes on the prize – what’s the prize the current President has his eyes on?

In the sense of a great and admirable end per se, I would be more inclined to draw the parallel with LBJ, who as a Southern President must have been deeply opposed at some level to the CRA – and yet, he did it, and that was a great achievement in both personal terms (he transcended himself, in some sense) and for the country as a whole.

The process CR describes in the OP is often called splitting, and seems to be endemic to two-party political systems which necessarily pit Us against Them. Perhaps it’s less endemic to parliamentary systems, where more nuanced and varied views can actually be heard and gain some degree of political power.

51

john c. halasz 11.29.12 at 6:38 am

“I think it was D.H. Lawrence”.
Well, the version of this idea that I’ve heard comes from some French wag, to the effect that America is the only great nation in the world to have gone from innocence to decadence without passing through the stage of civilization…

52

wilfred 11.29.12 at 6:50 am

“The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organisation, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!”

Nice rhetoric – and good to invoke today, when Palestinians once again ask for a chance to be treated like human beings.

Nah.

53

Walt 11.29.12 at 8:33 am

Was there a prize for the first person to gratuitously bring up Israel/Palestine?

54

Neville Morley 11.29.12 at 10:28 am

A slightly different way of putting it: it’s not just about the myth of the glorious, innocent past, it’s about the interdependence of that myth with the myth of the decadent present. Fury and/or despair about the supposedly wretched state of contemporary politics is founded on and fueled by the idea that it used to be so much better – the Romans did this all the time. Pointing out that the past wasn’t actually so different could lead to a deeper despair that politics is always grubby and corrupt, or – and I assume this is the aim of the film – could support a more realistic view that it’s always about the art of the possible, and the ends to which this deal-making and compromise are directed.

55

Phil 11.29.12 at 10:46 am

Himmler, in one of his more reflective moments, characterised the SS’s involvement in mass murder as a great and noble sacrifice by the murderers – they were such idealists that they’d sacrificed their own conscience to the cause, and were all the nobler for it. Or you could look at a film like the Untouchables, which sets up a confrontation between forbearing, law-abiding idealist Costner and brutal, lawless cynic Connery, but doesn’t have Costner corrupted by it or led into any grey areas – instead, he adopts Connery’s methods, triumphs and emerges as a brutal, lawless idealist. I guess that way you can have your idealistic cake and eat it.

56

Salient 11.29.12 at 1:07 pm

People, people: since this apparently needs stating, this post is not about *Lincoln* the film but about how it’s been received. Not by the entire viewing audience but, as I make clear, but by some fairly influential arbiters of cultural taste. Commentary about the film itself on this thread is totally beside the point.

Well, then please don’t say “What is it about this country” when you mean “What is it with these notable film critics.” I made the mistake of reading that bit and then thinking about what the general viewing audience would take away from the movie (Stevens’ testimony as climax) instead of attempting to care about mediocre exercises in exaltation from enthusiastic bad writers the handful of published reviews by notable wankers. (With notably rare exceptions, morethanablurb-length film criticism is awful, just awful.)

I tried to read the pieces you linked to, and got as far as “effected with a deliberation and exactness that consistently skirts the abyss of empty heart-stirring sentiment” before giving up. There’s just no use expecting teachable moments, much less a mature and responsible assessment of the role of political advocates in a functioning democracy, from someone who’s willing to commit those words to paper — which means your post is just another entry in the “why o why can’t we have a better press corps” canon. OK, but can you really blame us for accepting that lament as given and agreed upon, and moving on to consider what a moviegoer might take away from the film? Further commentary about the film critics themselves on this thread seems totally pointless.

57

mossy 11.29.12 at 1:18 pm

Yeah, what 56 said.

Actually, my question is: what is it about (some) American academics that makes them see the country, its people and history as just so uniquely and exquisitely weird and inferior? And who exactly are those mature, stably realistic Old World statesmen (statespeople) who are never excessively laudatory or cynical, who accept the moral cesspool of politics (with a knowing shrug?) and never, ever make their leaders demons or saints? Okay, they’re cooler about infidelity, I’ll grant that. Even Russian grannies are cooler about infidelity. But really, the whole starting argument is set up with so many strawmen (strawpeople), and with so many dubious premises, how can anyone respond?

It’s like the poster on the first thread who kept insisting that every other country had freed its slaves without “fuss.” You want “fuss”? Read about the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, and then get back to me.

I await my stoning.

58

Salient 11.29.12 at 1:28 pm

I do have to thank you for pointing to the review containing this gem:

It’s Lincoln’s only moment of majesty in office, and it leaves you shaken. Any thought of Jesus disappears. This is an Old Testament figure, wrathful and demanding.

“Any thought of Jesus disappears.” That was really, really funny. (The pitch-perfect iambic pentameter only adds to its glory.)

59

Main Street Muse 11.29.12 at 1:48 pm

Because I hail from Chicago, that cesspool like no other (unless you compare it to the cesspools that gave us Rove, Lee Atwater, etc.), I am periodically irritated with the stereotyping of “the Chicago way” as being separate and different and worse than how others engage in politicking.

And perhaps because I am from Chicago, the former hog butcher to the world now filled with insurance companies, I feel that if those “arbiters of cultural taste” are today shocked by Lincoln’s adroit ability to “politick,” and are surprised to see a hero sullied or portrayed in such a way, perhaps it is because their tastes are naive and uneducated… and perhaps we should be celebrating Spielberg for sharing this Lincoln with these “arbiters of cultural taste” and exposing them to those dirty realities they like to ignore.

60

Barry 11.29.12 at 2:44 pm

Tim Worstall: “Democratic (no, not the US party name) politics is indeed a moral cesspool. It’s who can pick other peoples’ pockets the best. The only saving grace of it all is that it’s less bad than all the other systems we’ve ever tried.”

Tim, when this is the level of your analysis, why should we consider anything that you say to be worth reading? Earlier in the thread it was pointed out that there’s the view of the 5-year old and the 15-year old. This is not even up to that; it’s the view of an 18-year old who just read libertarian literature as a freshman in college, and hasn’t learned a thing since.

61

Barry 11.29.12 at 2:48 pm

Trader Joe: “Its hagiography turned into mythology by people who still think the “Civil” war was about freeing the slaves….it was, but then it wasn’t….quite a measurable portion of Civil War historians (both Yanks and Rebs) view slavery as merely the vehicle for a debate, which ended in war, about states rights. It stands as the one and only test of the difference between being the UNITED states rather than united STATES.”

Bullsh*t. Read anything written during and before the war, and see what the grievances of the Slave States were. They were slavery, slavery, slavery and, uh,… other stuff. But first, second, third, fourth and fifth was slavery.

62

Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 3:03 pm

#56 and #57: Perhaps you missed these phrases in the OP, the first one of which immediately follows the statement 56 cited: “Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al?” “in the culture all the time, especially its more elite sectors.” “the story of politics among cultural and political elites in this country is always the same.” I suppose I could have made more such interventions, but I tend to be allergic to that kind of hand-holding. In any event, I thought three was more than enough to give the reader a sense of whom I was talking about.

63

Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.12 at 3:09 pm

Yes, but actually slavery was the main reason for secession. And the secession was the reason for war. So, yes, you could say that indirectly slavery was the main reason. Or, alternatively, you could say that it was the desire of Northern elites to keep the Southern provinces.

64

Harold 11.29.12 at 3:14 pm

The thought of David Denby, Chris Hayes, and Anthony Lane as “fairly influential cultural arbiters” makes me tremble for my country. Clearly we need to overhaul our system and install some seasoned and mature cultural commissars who (like a many historical movies) can be deeply right even when superficially wrong.

65

mossy 11.29.12 at 3:17 pm

But they’re movie critics. They don’t and can’t sit down and read the academic literature before watching a film — maybe they’ll google to check that Anna K really did throw herself under a train in the original and that DDL didn’t make up the high-pitched voice and stooped walk out of whole cloth — but they’re watching a couple films a day and writing on deadline. Most of them are probably not astute political observers — that’s not their profession.

66

Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 3:25 pm

#65: Lane, Denby, and O’Brien are more than Roger Ebert movie critics. O’Brien actually has a very strong feel and knowledge for US culture and history; he’s the editor of the Library of America series. Denby, as I mentioned, wrote a whole book on “great books” in both politics and literature. And Lane is a fantastic and fantastically learned critic. Hayes for his part is extraordinarily knowledge about politics and history; he’s been a journalist covering those issues for many years. So these are not inexperienced rubes. By any stretch. And none of them is watching a couple of films a day. Lane and Denby review one or two films every other week; O’Brien once in a blue moon; and Hayes almost never.

67

Trader Joe 11.29.12 at 3:48 pm

Barry a #61

Perhaps you are unfamilliar with the works of Ayers, Goodheart and several other noted Civil war historians that have actually looked at the real correspondence between and among Southern elected leaders, wealthy land/slave holders and influential voices at that time.

The overwhelming conclusion of this extensive body of work is that while these people were unquestionably seeking to defend their rights to hold slaves and protect their property – rights that were enshrined in the Constitution of the United States – what they actually wanted from Washington D.C. at large and Lincoln in particular was the right to set their own laws within their states…as had likewise been guaranteed to them under the constitution. State rights was the cause – slavery the vehicle.

They didn’t want a Federal government telling them what they could and could not do fearing the slippery slope – now well established, that Federal power would ultimately have no end. The stance was if Slavery was to be abolished, do it by constitutional amendment which the Northern states rejected because they knew they lacked the votes to do so – as such, it was done by federal fiat….much like any number of things are now done today.

My full comment as you quoted is that the debate “was….but then it wasnt” about slavery…I never said it had nothing do with slavery, quite the contrary. My point was that the Southern states wanted the right to their own self determination. They wished to be more STATES, than UNITED by a Federal master.

To be clear – I do not defend the Southern view on either the exclusivity of states rights or the institution of slavery…the former has its flaws and the latter is clearly morally wrong. My commentary is historical accuracy, not political revisionism.

That said, mythologizing that the vast majority of Northern power gave two rips about southern slavery and were willing to fight a war over it is plainly bogus…neither the North nor the South wanted to have a war which is likewise quite plain in the correspondence of the day. Hawks were the minority in both constituencies.

What the North wanted was a powerful federal government because they had sufficient population and resource to control it. The South wanted the opposite because they didn’t and they knew it, so were forced into defending the status quo, which was a weak federal government.

Slavery was clearly the choice issue to propagandize and it was done extremely well – its little wonder that 5 year olds and 15 year olds were taught that the cause was right and just, rather than greed and power. This I think the film portrays rather well.

68

Barry 11.29.12 at 3:51 pm

Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.12 at 3:09 pm

” Yes, but actually slavery was the main reason for secession. And the secession was the reason for war. So, yes, you could say that indirectly slavery was the main reason. Or, alternatively, you could say that it was the desire of Northern elites to keep the Southern provinces.”

That’s a rather direct cause, actually. They wanted A, and felt that war was the only way to get it. And yes, secession was war; please note that a ban on secession was written into the Confederate Constitution – it wasn’t a ‘right’ that the slaveowners recognized for anybody but themselves.

As for the second, this is debatable. The Northern bankers certainly wanted their loans repaid, but they also had a shot at doing that through other means, with (presumably) far lower taxation on themselves. The Northern merchants could presumably have conducted business with a sovereign Confederacy quite well, since they were doing profitable business with Europe.

And IIRC, the hottest hotbed of anti-war sentiment was New York City, a concentration of bankers, merchants and industrialists.

69

Salient 11.29.12 at 3:55 pm

I suppose I could have made more such interventions, but I tend to be allergic to that kind of hand-holding. In any event, I thought three was more than enough to give the reader a sense of whom I was talking about.

Jeez, dude. For what it’s worth, I do know whom you were talking about. And, I also feel that their takeaway from Lincoln is spot-on accurate. That is, it’s not that they inexplicably feel this movie has revealed a Great Truth about Lincoln. It’s that the movie very much encourages all of us to do so. The movie plainly asserts that Politics Is Dirty a gigantic, monumental insight into not only politics, but also the practical meaning of virtue. But, yes. The people who should know better than to celebrate this fucked up by writing awful and awfully stupid reviews, by falling for the vision Lincoln constructed without realizing it’s insightless old hat.

70

CJColucci 11.29.12 at 4:07 pm

Just about everyone commenting on both posts seems to agree:

1. That various groups and people other than the elite white politicians who rammed through the 13th amendment had considerable impact on the demise of slavery;

2. That vast numbers of people don’t know that;

3. That Lincoln focuses on the doings of the elite white politicians; and

4. That sort of emphasis is conventional Hollywood procedure.

Many commenters say that, in the abstract at least, they’d prefer a different type of movie. It would probably take someone better than Spielberg to do it well, but no point arguing about hypothetical movies.

So what is all the disagreement about? It seems to be a disagreement about what the two posts are about. Why is there such disagreement? And can we agree on what we’re talking about?

71

Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.12 at 4:07 pm

Bankers, merchants and industrialists certainly weren’t behind 1963 draft riots. In fact, the rich being able to buy their way out of the draft was the main reason, iirc.

72

Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.12 at 4:10 pm

That’s 1863, of course.

73

Toby 11.29.12 at 4:28 pm

James McPherson used Isaiah Berlin’s analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox. The fox has many wiles and strategems, but the hedgehog has only one big thing – its principles. There were many foxes around in 1860 – Stephen Douglas for one, James Buchanan, probably even William Sewart. Hedgehogs? – well, besides John C. Calhoun, who was dead, I cannot think of one.

Lincoln was an ususual combination, and that is the only way I can describe him, a sort of Hedgefox, who could use his wiles to defend his principles. My favourite Lincoln example has nothing to do with slavery, but with the Minnesoa Sioux Rising of 1862, one of the biggest Indian wars, and one that was attended by slaughter of both whites and Indians, plus the biggest mass rapes of white women in American history.

Lincoln was presented (after a trial) with a list of over 303 Indian names for public execution by hanging. Though in the midst of many crises, by patient enquiries and reading transcripts, Lincoln whittled the names down to 39. It was stil the largest single execution in American history. And historians found that some of the worst offenders escaped trial altogether, and some innocents were undoubtedly executed. But Lincoln had done his best, despite the outcry among Minnesotans.

In 1864, Lincoln only carried Minnesota narrowly. The Governor told Lincoln he would have won by more if he hanged more Indians. Lincoln replied “I could not hang men for votes”

Lincoln could somehow flirt with cynicism, but not become its slave. Did he calculate the minimum Indians he could hang and still get re-elected? Or was it all in a noble spirit of justice? With Lincoln, we will never know exactly, because he was an inensely private person. Tellingly, he often argued that the best speech written by Shakespeare was Claudius’, the one where Claudius admits his guilt “My offence is rank, it smells to heaven ….”, but cannot reverse his course or surrender its fruits.

74

William Timberman 11.29.12 at 4:31 pm

In response to the premise of this post, I don’t have much to say except that I’ve been aware since I was very young — ten years old or so — of a specifically American style of self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness, call it what you will, and it’s always grated on me. It’s not the only kind around, certainly, but it does have a flavor of its own, which is largely, if not exclusively, Southern in origin.

If you read John Adams’ correspondence, or Emerson’s essays, or indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, you get very little of it. Jefferson’s, or Washington’s, on the other hand…and by the time you get to John C. Calhoun, it’s more or less in full cry. After 240 years or so, though, its decadent forms are sometimes hard to recognize. I call it the Jimmy/Billy syndrome, after President Carter and his wastrel brother, but you can see it just as clearly in Southern evangelists on the one hand, and Texas oilmen/Karl Rove on the other. No need to point out, I think, which is the Madonna and which the Whore (of Babylon, in this case).

The moral ambivalence of a slaveholding aristocracy eventually infects everything it comes in contact with. It would be nice if there were some kind of philosophical pesticide that we could spray on the posturers of both kinds, but if even a Civil War couldn’t make them go away, I suppose we’ll just have to rely on time, and on steadfast resistance, and hope for the best.

75

Mao Cheng Ji 11.29.12 at 4:42 pm

“But it would be like trying to explain Nazism without mentioning the Germans, or the Holocaust in Eastern Europe without mention the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, and more.”

Are we still discussing the 5 year olds? A normally developed 15 year old should already be able to explain Nazism without mentioning ‘the Germans’.

76

QS 11.29.12 at 4:52 pm

I think we miss the most basic point, which is that we (social science/humanities academics) are not the primary audience for this film. Rather, the film is watched by millions of Americans who’ve been educated since primary school through presidential hagiographies. Every so often, a piece of popular media will appear that cuts through that, to everyone’s (the broad public) interest and surprise, e.g. Howard Zinn’s history book.

77

PGD 11.29.12 at 5:02 pm

@49: I don’t know, calling Lincoln equivalent of George Washington, the author of the ‘most important document in American history since the founding of the Union’, and some who accomplished ‘feats that only heroes could accomplish in the old world’ doesn’t sound very ordinary-politician to me. Seems that Marx is saying Lincoln is an ordinary person who became an extraordinary and historic politician because of the space the American system gives to the true popular will.

You might also check out Marx’s letter to Lincoln on the occasion of his 1864 reelection, which says that the international working class “consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world”.

78

ponce 11.29.12 at 5:57 pm

Spielberg had his own transcendent Lincoln moment years ago, when he toured an archive of the president’s possessions in Springfield, Ill. “I put on white surgical gloves and was given the chance to actually touch the dress that Mary was wearing when Lincoln was assassinated. And I had the chance to also pick up — and hold in my hand — his hat.”

What went through his own mind in that thoughtful moment?

Spielberg pauses, then says with a laugh: “That I would never be as tall as him.”

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/08/07/first-look-daniel-day-lewis-lincoln/

79

Harold 11.29.12 at 7:12 pm

Here is the review Corey Robin maybe wishes he had written:

http://www.notevenpast.org/watch/historian-views-spielbergs-lincoln

80

Harold 11.29.12 at 7:13 pm

Actually, I really liked War Horse.

81

bianca steele 11.29.12 at 9:48 pm

Or you could look at a film like the Untouchables, which sets up a confrontation between forbearing, law-abiding idealist Costner and brutal, lawless cynic Connery, but doesn’t have Costner corrupted by it or led into any grey areas – instead, he adopts Connery’s methods, triumphs and emerges as a brutal, lawless idealist. I guess that way you can have your idealistic cake and eat it.

As for the last sentence, given the question posed in the OP (which I’m personally not sure about), something like the preceding sentence would be necessary if the tolerance for “smallness” was as low as I think the OP’s suggesting. Another way of putting it would be that it’s a different definition of “lawless.” If so, Scorsese isn’t saying something about the brutality of Ness (government) as about the failure of ordinary American life to live up to his ideals (the audience generally). Though there’s an awful lot of wiggle room there, and it could mean anything up to Himmler and back again, with only the level of outrage to judge how serious it seems to be understood to be.

82

Main Street Muse 11.29.12 at 10:37 pm

To Bianca @81: Untouchables was a Brian DePalma flick, not Scorcese, FYI… VERY different directors.

In the Untouchables, you’ll find Sean Connery’s story of “the Chicago way.” You’ll also find DePalma’s version of the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, a film that manipulates a historical event to create propaganda for the new Soviet government.

83

novakant 11.30.12 at 12:16 am

One of these things is not like the others:

a.) Costa-Gavras
b.) Gilles Pontecorvo
c.) Glauber Rocha
d.) Steven Spielberg
d.) Elio Petri
e.) Francesco Rosi

84

bianca steele 11.30.12 at 12:32 am

De Palma, you’re right. My mistake. But did he pull in all the political implications of every film he ever alluded to onscreen? Or was he more like the sound guy in Blow Out, picking random images out of what he heard, and reusing them to create something of his own?

I’d also forgotten Mamet wrote the screenplay for that one, too.

85

Main Street Muse 11.30.12 at 12:38 am

A Mamet screenplay – did not realize that. Haven’t seen Untouchables in a while. Somehow I think DePalma was more like the guy in Blow Out, picking out random things to use. He probably really liked the Union Station staircase. He was big on channeling Hitchcock too in his early days.

If you look at the Odessa Steps and the Untouchables Union Station scenes, they provide a terrific example of how our visual literacy has transformed over the first century of film – and how cultural narratives are woven into celluloid.

86

Seth 11.30.12 at 1:14 am

Anderson@5

“Living amongst Southern fundamentalists, I want to attribute this complex to our Puritan heritage, but I am open to other suggestions.”

Are you familiar with David Hackett Fischer’s book “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America“? According to his account, a Puritan influence would not explain the attitudes in your neighborhood, since the Puritans mostly went to New England. Maybe the Calvinist fire and brimstone you see around you derives from the Scottish reformation kirk via Fischer’s “Borderlands to Backcountry” channel? But that theory probably doesn’t explain the Baptist style of fundamentalism very well either. The 18th century Great Awakening and then the ‘secession’ of the Southern Baptists over slavery probably are more directly relevant than cultural traditions from 17th century Britain.

Fun to speculate, but probably doesn’t do much towards coping with the nasty side-effects of science-denial, etc. that confront us in the here and now.

87

blackterror 11.30.12 at 1:42 am

Don’t you think that this obvious problem is at least something of a failure of American political reporting, still shackled by the cult of objectivity into not reporting on rumor about the actual process of the sausage making? When you set this alongside the much later in time account that comes down when the history books are written, it seems easier to hold simultaneous beliefs of innocence and cynicism at the same time. Contemporaneous denatured news, radio-TV-newspaper – all surface (I think here of the inane interviews with politicians that populate NPR in particular); much later revelatory history, after the fact for a proportionally smaller audience always requires work to reconcile. As for the bad conscience of cultural elites, Upton Sinclair’s quote comes to mind: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”

88

Dave 11.30.12 at 2:06 am

Ever watch The West Wing ? It’s a seven-season long blend of sanctimony and sausage-making.

89

Harold 11.30.12 at 3:34 am

Roger Ebert was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He is pretty smart.

90

mossy 11.30.12 at 6:32 am

CR: Those critics probably do watch a couple movies a day even if they don’t review all of them. And — to varying degrees — they wrote thoughtful pieces about the film-as-film and the film-as-cultural sign. You just don’t agree with their conclusions. Many very learned people posting here don’t agree with your conclusions. So really, what’s the big deal? Write a movie review and get it published in a widely read publication. Enter the public discussion.

91

nb 11.30.12 at 12:23 pm

Robin Corey is doing an injustice to David Denby, the only review I had time to look at. Denby is saying that this is a great MOVIE about gritty legislative processes. I see no evidence that Denby is unaware of the standard historiography of Lincoln, or of the fact that the MAN Lincoln was a gritty politician. Out of this category mistake Mr. Corey spins this flashily erudite to-do about the whore-madonna complex in American politics. A clever, well-educated boy on the make in the moral cesspool of American journalism. Got it.

92

educated ice 11.30.12 at 3:42 pm

not for nothing, but i have to take issue with the usage of ‘madonna-whore complex’ here. the ‘madonna-whore complex’ refers specifically to a gendered ideology; it indicates contradictory expectations for women, expectations that they cannot fulfill and are punished for. the madonnas are objects of worship or suspicion (often both at the same time), never subjects in their own right, and the whores are objects of derision. abstracting away from the particular gendered context of the ‘madonna-whore’ thing ruins its meaning: you’re not describing a situation in which Lincoln is punished for being a mythic hero, and then punished for being a backroom horse-trader. in fact you’re describing the very opposite.

ideology critique requires a lot of tools, because ideology takes several different forms. it’s worth using the right tools for the job.

93

rootless (@root_e) 11.30.12 at 7:49 pm

he was a man, neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste, slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them, carried away by no surge of popular favour, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse, tempering stern acts by the gleams of a kind heart, illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humour, doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as Heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state; in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1865/johnson-letter.htm

As for the unrealism, it’s funny to see it discovered with surprise here. Zizek explained it all.
http://krebscycle.tumblr.com/post/14171228736/slavoj-zizek-for-the-win

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rootless (@root_e) 11.30.12 at 8:11 pm

And it’s also worth listening to Obama on Lincoln and reading the progressive critique – fortunately all packaged together simply here.
http://news.firedoglake.com/2011/07/17/obamas-last-lecture/

95

andthenyoufall 11.30.12 at 8:23 pm

“The truth is somewhere in between” is surely the wisdom of 10 year olds, is it not? Which isn’t to say that Corey is wrong, but seeing the tension between a situation’s being both very black, yet also very, very white in a fully fleshed-out, tangible artistic work is usually a satisfying aesthetic experience. It’s like the 10 year old scowling at a Picasso: “But I already knew that faces have a left side and a right side – everyone knows that! When can we go to the cafeteria?”

96

rootless (@root_e) 11.30.12 at 8:30 pm

“I’d also forgotten Mamet wrote the screenplay for that one, too.”

The guy who thinks that Thomas Sowell is America’s greatest contemporary philosopher.

97

Will Boisvert 11.30.12 at 9:35 pm

@ JW Mason 49,

Great Karl Marx quote. Marx really was a brilliant journalist (though a lousy economist and philosopher in my book).

It’s striking that Marx there is really voicing a grudging admiration for what we could call “bourgeois politics”—the complex of tortured parliamentary compromise, constitutional legalism and aggrandizing of the nation-state. His back-handed enthusiasm for Lincoln must have fed on his astonishment over what bourgeois politics was accomplishing in the Civil War. In Europe Marx had seen bourgeois politics do nothing except cut deals with reactionary authoritarianism. But in America it was doing something useful and progressive—freeing the slaves!

But Marx’s tribute cut’s against the grain of left ideology, which continues to feel a visceral suspicion and disdain for bourgeois politics. Leftists’ preferred form of politics is insurrectionary direct action from below. They like to see militias organized, communes founded, land seized, plantation houses sacked and general strikes called. That’s the left’s conception of a serious, “real” politics that cuts right to bare-knuckled class struggle and doesn’t get distracted by the corrupt, propagandistic elite machinations intrinsic to bourgeois politics.

And those are precisely the kinds of scenes that leftist critics wish Spielberg had put in his movie. Lincoln is a tribute to bourgeois politics (and one that Marx the journalist might have appreciated) and that’s what I think really bugs leftists—not that it leaves out blacks, which it doesn’t, but that it leaves out the popular insurrection. To the left, popular insurrection is always the real story, the only form of progressive politics that actually makes history happen, with bourgeois politics providing at best a superfluous ratification of the “facts on the ground” that insurrectionary class struggle has already established.

But as I argued on the other Lincoln thread, that impulse in left historiography is wrong-headed. Bourgeois politics broadly construed—not just the congressional wranglings but the attendant nationalist project of military conquest, the public moral-political debate and the constitutional revolution that entrenched abolition—was far and away more important to the cause of emancipation than was the insurrectionary direct action of slaves. And crucially, bourgeois politics was the mechanism by which blacks themselves could most powerfully influence history and exert control over their own destinies.

98

William Timberman 11.30.12 at 9:50 pm

Leftists: the kind of people who, when frustrated with bourgeois politics, tend to fire on Fort Sumter. Or something.

99

Harold 11.30.12 at 11:15 pm

Action from below isn’t necessarily “insurrectionary” but is just as necessary to bourgeios democracy as are legal acumen, back-room politics, and if necessary force. Nor does the fact that according to their critics, Kushner and Speilberg did not sufficiently show such grass roots action, necessarily mean they were “blinkered” and “unable to imagine it” and that they are therefore bigots bent on perpetuating “damaging” (Kate Masur’s word) stereotypes. But don’t worry, Masur and Robin in their superior enlightenment will, dare I say it, “rescue” us from such “damage.”

100

Bill Barnes 12.01.12 at 12:58 am

Will Boisvert 96

You have a very skewed and truncated conception of the “left” and “left politics.”

101

Bruce Wilder 12.01.12 at 1:59 am

There is a kind of soi disant liberalism, or “moderate” centrism, in our own day, which archly supposes that activism, protest, and political organization from the bottom, are dubious and unnecessary distractions at best, when not actively counter-productive. I suppose the same spirit enjoys historical narratives of wise, “serious” men, responsibly deliberating over what is best, guiding the nation with Olympian detachment. And, there is a (sometimes unconscious) racism, which would erase all, but white faces from the cast of speaking parts, in relating our national dramas.

I find the racism in Masur’s critique somewhat repugnant, but I am sympathetic, in general, to the cause of social history and representing the roles of ordinary people, and think it is useful, if people are led, on the occasion of this film, to think about how the oppressed can act in their own interest, and collectively, to challenge their oppression, and not depend on the moral character or good intentions of a single individual.

In the defense of Kushner and Speilberg, any two and half hour movie is going to leave out a lot; what’s included has to be focused: every scene, every line and gesture, must tell. I wonder what Masur thinks should have been excluded.

Necessarily, a film about a legislative process is going to focus on those in the legislature. There were no black faces on the floor of the House, and imagining some would have been a falsification. The critical votes and voices were those of the least enthusiastic, the most conflicted, the least committed to the cause. The inframarginal passion of the abolishnists hardly mattered at all, except as portrayed by the case of Thaddeus Stevens, to the extent that it might scare the horses.

If Kushner and Speilberg were to show the effect of the activism of blacks, they might have shown, not more of the activism itself, as Masur advocates, but something more of the effect of that activism — a legislator, say, whose racist assumptions may have been undermined by the examples of black soldiery. Blacks remained throughout, a marginalized minority, even if the central issue concerned them most vitally, and they appeared as actors, as much or more through the imaginations of white actors, than as central and active figures conducting their own motion — that’s just historical fact, which Kushner and Speilberg transferred to drama, with considerable sensitivity for the power of imagination.

For our own time, the least plausible aspect of the film is also the least plausible aspect of the political events themselves: that a conservative party or politician might actually try to do the right thing, might actually want to do something other than cut a rich man’s taxes or excuse a powerful business its crimes.

102

Meredith 12.01.12 at 2:37 am

Trader Joe @67:
Stuff and nonsense.
See, e.g., Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era) U. Virginia Press 2002.

103

Kaveh 12.01.12 at 4:58 am

To me this ‘madonna-whore complex'[1] is very reminiscent of how (it often feels to me) people will readily admit that the political system is very corrupt, and yet have trouble accepting particular narratives about how politicians are bought off by such-and-such interests on any particular important issue. Because nobody wants to be a conspiracy theorist.[2] “You’re saying we went to war with Iraq because of the MIC and the Israel lobby?[3] What are you, a conspiracy theorist?”

There was a This American Life episode many years back called, I think, “Smoke-Filled Room” with a story about how agricultural commodities companies were caught colluding to fix prices. And Ira Glass’s comment was smthg to the effect of: ‘You would think that a scheme to fix prices would be more subtle than a bunch of guys sitting in a smoke-filled room, deciding what the price of milk should be. There must be something else to it. But that’s pretty much what it was: a bunch of guys sitting in a room saying “so how much should milk cost?” and working it out.’ If there is corruption and price-fixing and secret meetings with representatives of powerful industries, it has to look like something. But to believe that there are actual smoke-filled rooms just seems too credulous.

ChapatiMystery once pointed that if a head of state is assassinated in a third-world country, it’s a coup d’etat, but if you describe the Kennedy assassination that way you’re a conspiracy theorist because those things don’t happen here. That seems like yet another variant on the theme.

“Of course our politics is corrupt. Just don’t ask me how.” Because if you accept all the explanations, that makes you a pinko radical. “But of course I don’t trust the government.” I feel like anti-intellectualism has a lot to do with this, but also a kind of high-brow disdain for straightforward explanations.[4]

fn 1: educated ice @92, Couldn’t you say that politicians are expected to be pure-as-driven-snow idealists, and that they’re also supposed to ‘get things done’ (which means horse-trading, pragmatism, compromise/corruption), and they get blamed for whichever one they’re not doing enough, sometimes blamed for both at the same time?
fn 2: Hofstadter was mentioned in the OP, is this ‘reverse-paranoia’ something he talks about?
fn3: There, I did it! I brought up Israel and Palestine in a thread on American politics! Israel Israel Israel Israel!! Palestine Palestine Palestine! OOooooo I’m so bad.
fn4: Am I just paraphrasing Hofstadter at this point? I should read Paranoid Style so I’ll know…

104

Peter T 12.01.12 at 4:58 am

Thinks “well, it could have been Braveheart”

105

purple 12.01.12 at 6:20 am

Per ‘War of Northern Aggression’ posts – The South wanted to expand slavery, not preserve their freaking “rights”. You have heard of Dred Scott ? The Kansas-Nebraska act ? Both of which paved the way for the expansion of slavery everywhere.

The only problem with the Civil War is it didn’t fully liquidate the southern aristocracy, but rehabilitated them under Johnson.

106

Bill Barnes 12.01.12 at 10:04 pm

After finally seeing the movie last night, I am even more dishartened by most of the comments here and on Corey’s blog, from all sides. For all its sins of omission and occasional mawkish touches, overall the film is a powerful presentation of the moral seriousness, the existential centrality, of politics in certain kinds of historical circumstances. Corey, I just don’t see how you can say that it’s nothing but “there are only two choices: either politics is noble speeches from noble men or it’s grubby horse-trading.” That’s not what I saw or felt – rather it took me back, at least a little bit, to being in the same room with Martin King in Alabama in 1965 – and left me comparing what that was like for me at age 20, with my 20 year old students today, virtually none of whom are registered to vote and all of whom seem to think that all politics is a joke, all politicians, at all times and places, are crooks, liers, bafoons – who look at me as if I were from Mars when I talk about what it was like to be their age in the Sixties.

107

gordon 12.01.12 at 10:52 pm

Kaveh (at 103): “Because if you accept all the explanations, that makes you a pinko radical.”

And people don’t want to be pinko radicals because that implies they ought to do something about it. That in turn means they have to confront two scary things; first, that there may be bad personal consequences (people stop talking to you; you lose your job; your wife leaves you…) and second that, even if against the odds you make some progress, the ruling class takes revenge by wrecking the whole shebang.

108

rootless (@root_e) 12.02.12 at 12:21 am

@ 106 Bill Barnes 12.01.12 at 10:04 pm

And that’s the most glaring problem with the progressive left – it has a political program that is little more than sneering at people who are willing to work. Everything effective is so pathetically morally compromised that one has no alternative but to object to it and clarify the moral, political, intellectual, and other failings of those involved.

109

Bill Barnes 12.02.12 at 2:12 am

rootless 108

The progressive left is not an “it,” not a “the,” and “a” political program does not exist. Rather, a broad, internally conflicted constellation with multiple overlapping “programs.” I, among many, have been wandering around in there for 50 years, and will remain.

110

rootless (@root_e) 12.02.12 at 2:24 am

@109

Well, I am at a loss of what to call it, but Robins, Doug Henwood, Counterspin-to-TheNation …
http://killiansaid.blogspot.com/2010/11/how-i-left-left.html

111

Corey Robin 12.02.12 at 3:53 am

106: See my comment at 45.

110: Rootless, you’re not going to hijack another thread in order to turn the discussion into one of your silly hobbyhorses, of which there seem to be exactly two. Knock it off or I’ll ban you.

112

Peter Erwin 12.04.12 at 7:26 pm

ChapatiMystery once pointed that if a head of state is assassinated in a third-world country, it’s a coup d’etat, but if you describe the Kennedy assassination that way you’re a conspiracy theorist because those things don’t happen here.

That sounds like a very silly argument. Given that there have been four assassination of American Presidents, and in all four cases power passed to the Vice President per the Constitution (and we have no evidence the VPs were involved), then it’s perfectly sensible not to call those “coups”. Not to mention the fact that no one refers to the assassinations of, say, Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, or Ranasinghe Premadasa as “coups”.

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